9 Ungrading in a General Education Science Course
by Heather Miceli
June 11, 2021
I teach general education science – you know, the classes that barely anyone wants to take on campus. Nonmajors are forced into the classes because of general education graduation requirements and majors are exempt from taking the classes, while also holding the opinion that they are above taking such a class (really, they aren’t and most science students could use a good general education science class that humanizes science for them, but that’s probably a different piece of writing).
They are also usually the classes that get the least amount of support out of our departments – the course I teach is taught only by a “loyal” team of adjuncts, with the occasional full-timer popping in for the fun of it if they need a class on the schedule. This lack of support is pretty clearly seen throughout the university community, so there is a perception that the classes aren’t valued by the institution. That perception gets passed down to students, who then wonder what the value of taking general education science is.
So I’m at a disadvantage before anyone ever signs up for my class.
And then they sign up.
My students obviously have a large range of experiences with science before they even walk into my classroom – their experiences also shape their perception of my course before they even meet me or read (or not read) a syllabus. Being a predominately white, private institution means I have a higher than average percentage of students that took AP science courses in high school, while I also have some students that only took a single science class in high school. I have quite a few students that are excited to be taking another science class. Then there is the ambivalent middle: composed of both students who had good and not so good experiences in science classes growing up, but don’t really care enough about science to voluntarily take a whole class on it, or don’t really understand the need to take the class.
But then there are those with bad science experiences.
And some of them are heartbreakingly bad.
Take R. R wrote in their pre-course reflection (a reflection that basically asks what were your prior science experiences) that they really hadn’t liked science since one of their teachers, knowing full well that R had ADHD, would hold up R’s work in the class as an example of what *not* to do.
I’ve only recently begun to put a name on this type of experience. This is trauma.
Some of my students enter my science classroom with traumatic science experiences – I’ve probably read dozens in the three years since I started requesting pre-course reflections. And I, a mere adjunct, am supposed to somehow teach students with traumatic experiences to respect and appreciate science. This is the last formal science education they will ever get, so it’s kind of important for me to do my job well so that my students don’t contribute to the anti-science, anti-intellectualism views so popular in America today.
Challenge accepted, I guess.
I will preface the rest of this piece with the following: I plan on writing about ungrading here, but it really cannot be separated from the other transformational pedagogies I use in this class: reflective writing as opposed to “objective” exams, Open Pedagogy, student choice, completely student-led discussions/lectures. All of these pedagogical choices interplay with one another so much that I can’t attribute any progress my students make to any single choice. Nor should I – ungrading is part of my transformation as a teacher. How I use ungrading will be different from how someone else uses ungrading. I can only tell you that it’s a good choice for my students and explain why in hopes that you can see the value in questioning our current system of grading.
I always get the question “How will students learn science without grades?” as if extrinsic motivation is the only way that students will learn in general education classes. But we learn for the sake of learning all the time – I’ve learned quite a bit about teaching on Twitter in the past four years, do I get graded on how well I engage with peers on Twitter? Of course not. I’m intrinsically motivated to be a better teacher. Our students do a lot of things without being graded – they play sports, they serve in student senate, they participate in clubs. Learning happens in all of these spaces and most of it really is because they want to.
I have to set up conditions that allow my students to want to learn. I need to tap into their curiosity. I need to give them the freedom to explore science in ways they can derive meaning from it – even if it literally begins with “Woah! That’s really cool!” So I do – I run my class by opening up the day with a Google Jamboard where students can add questions and comments about the topics we discuss and I use those questions drive the day’s “lecture” (I do talk a lot, but I’m talking about what they want to know, rather than what I deem important to know). Students reflect independently on the topics each week as well – really honing in on how the topics are relevant to their lives. (This is where I tell you that my class is general science, so we talk about topics that are societally relevant – Space exploration, Vaccines, Climate Change, Evolution, DNA, Energy Sources, etc. They vote on what topics we explore at the beginning of the semester. I also have zero content related learning objectives so I have a ton of academic freedom here). I want them to explore science in ways that make sense to them.
However, part of opening up the space to learn science for themselves is removing any barriers to risk taking. Take T for example – T really liked science in high school, actually wanting to study environmental science as a minor, but couldn’t quite get past the chemistry requirement. They were really looking forward to the weeks we were exploring environmental topics, but less so topics like Stem Cells and Artificial Intelligence. However, when it came to our AI week, they realized that they could spend the week focused on video games – a hobby of theirs – and how video games have helped advance AI. That’s taking an intellectual risk – how many times have you heard something along the lines of “video games melt kids brains” or some nonsense? T took a risk that they could spend a week diving into information on video games in my class to learn more about artificial intelligence and in turn ended up enjoying the week more than any other week because they really got to learn more about something they already loved – and started an excellent discussion on the Turing Test as a result in the class discussion. Under a traditional grading system, T may not have been encouraged to explore AI and video games and as a result, may not have learned as much.
Ungrading also relieves the stress on even those who shoot for high grades and enjoy science. J was a student that has high anxiety around grades – must get an A or else. It’s not something they can control. But under an ungrading system, J thrived. J had a little trouble at first letting go of knowing exactly what was needed to get an A. This happens a lot even after I’ve explained how it works a couple of times. But J realized that they could learn anything they wanted about our topics and realized the value of learning for learning, not learning to get an A. They went deeper and further than they ever would have if I gave them an A based on some rubric of performance.
Ungrading can be especially beneficial for students that have experienced trauma in middle/high school classes. They likely did not retain the basics we expect high schoolers to have coming into college. I used to give exams in this course, and my reasoning was “it’s a science class, how can you teach science without exams?” Of course, my exams were terribly inequitable. For some of my students, the exams were mostly a review from content they learned in high school, but for others, the content was so beyond what they could comprehend because they lacked the basic knowledge I assumed they would have had in high school. How on earth is an “objective” exam supposed to measure learning under these conditions? What if a failing grade retraumatizes a student in this situation – what would that accomplish? This is why I ungrade – because each student’s learning is going to be different based on their relationship to science.
I also caution general education science teachers to not force students into focusing only on the basics if that is what they are “missing.” Students can absolutely understand the implications of climate change without having a complete understanding of the greenhouse effect. Students can understand treatments and symptoms of cancer without a full understanding of the biology of cancer. If they need to learn something to understand a high level topic, they will. I can’t force them to learn something they aren’t ready to learn. I literally have 15 weeks to flip the script of these students’ relationships to science. I need to let them choose their path. And I can’t punish them if that path looks different than what I would have planned for them.
Of course, I have to give a grade at the end of the semester, and my students self-assess and we conference about it. I end up with a lot of As. I don’t care. And then I get the “rigor” argument. “If so many students can get As, how do you know it’s rigorous enough?” Isn’t my job to teach students? If all my students get As, doesn’t that mean I’ve done my job? Why would we look for normal grade distribution curves in a general science course? We don’t want people failing these classes – that’s literally the antithesis of what we want to happen!
I also respond with this: My students will tell you that they’ve learned more in my class than any science class they’ve taken, and some will even say more than any other college class they’ve taken. Nearly all of them respond that having the freedom to learn science this way has made them appreciate the role that science plays in their lives. Seriously, at the end of the semester I ask them their one takeaway from the class and nearly all respond that they learned that they like science more than they did on day one. When I first prompted this question, I really thought students would respond with which topic they liked the most, I did not expect full revelations about how my class changed their relationship to science. And isn’t that the point of general education science? To develop a student’s relationship to science in a way that makes them a more scientifically literate member of society? Why would we put a grade on something like that?
We wouldn’t. And we definitely should consider the impact grades have in our general education science classes in continuing to traumatize and deincentivize students in learning science. Too many instructors teach general education science as if the students are majors and need to be weeded out (which should also not be happening, but another issue for another day yet again). We should be tasked with calling our students in and rewarding their learning, rather than punishing them under an oppressive system of grades that really does nothing but retraumatizes students that have been traumatized before. We need to have conversations about what the role of general education science really is and how traditional conceptions of teaching can sometimes fail our students. We all want scientifically literate students – we need to rethink how we help students develop their relationship to science. And it requires stepping out of the box pedagogically.